February 3rd is Setsubun, the last day of winter in Japan. It’s commonly celebrated by throwing beans to scare away the ogres and demons, and by eating an overstuffed sushi roll while facing in the lucky direction for the coming year. 2024’s direction is East North East.
But in Okugome village in Kimitsu, about a twenty minute drive from us, there is a different tradition: a nighttime bonfire to burn new years’ decorations. The dondo-yaki.*
Our friends live in the village and helped to prepare the bonfire. At the start of January, all of the materials were carried into the rice field and left to dry. A week ago, all of the bamboo, bundles of wood, and rope were formed into a tall structure in multiple levels, with new year decorations scattered through it and tied around the base.
Our friends have been talking this up for a while but due to the pandemic, it was on hold for a few years. Their build-up was absolutely correct. It’s one of the most spectacular and surprising ceremonies I have seen.
The atmosphere is festive, much like a temple at the new year. The organisers greet neighbors and pour warm sake into cups cut from fresh bamboo. There is lots of chatting and laughing as everyone gathers and waits.
All the folks who were born under the current zodiac animal, so this year all the Dragon babies, are invited to light the dondo. There is a blessing ceremony by the priests and then the pyre is lit.
The serious and careful ceremonial start of the fire was quickly followed by a unexpected eruption of the flames into a massive torch announcing the presence of the Dragon himself.
The heat coming off the fire warmed the whole crowd. We enjoyed more sake, along with tonjiru and yaki soba while the fire burned.
In two years it will be my turn to light the dondo-yaki and you can be sure I will be there to kick off the celebration of my 60th year.
* In other places through Japan, there is a dondo-yaki for burning new year decorations, but it is held mid-January and isn’t nearly this enormous.